Whether you’re attempting to lose weight or trying to improve your overall diet, changing eating habits can prove to be an extremely difficult task. Eating behaviors develop gradually over time and may be influenced by multiple factors, including your surroundings, emotions, family and friends. Changing these behaviors involves conscious effort and time, and requires that you pay attention to your actions for two reasons:
- First, to identify opportunities for change within your diet, and
- Secondly, to identify the circumstances that lead you to choosing certain foods over others.
Without writing this down in the form of food journals, or tracking it by using apps it gets harder to identify these triggers. Therefore, journaling, or as we call it, self-monitoring can be a game changer in your health journey. For this to be effective it is important that you are as truthful and consistent as possible, so that you can get a true picture of your diet and behaviour.
Several studies prove that monitoring not only your food, but also your exercise and weight can be very effective for weight loss. Regardless of the tools used or whether food, exercise, or weight is monitored – the more accurate and detailed the record, the better weight loss can be achieved. Increasing the frequency of the records has also been associated with increased weight loss. Although these studies focused on weight loss, self-monitoring can be a great tool for people who want to make healthier lifestyle choices regardless of whether weight loss is the goal.
Given the importance and effectiveness of monitoring on your health’s end results, this is a tool your do not want to miss out on.
Let’s begin Self-Monitoring
- Setting your Expectations
- Setting the stage & Getting the tools ready
- Learn your Baseline
- Determine your End Results
Setting your Expectations
Depending on how ready and motivated you are, you can monitor in several different ways.
Going Slow, but Steady
Remember in the story of the rabbit and turtle, the turtle won the race by going slow and steady. If you like to work like that, then try this:
- Focus on 1 to 3 changes at a time. For example, you can choose to increase your water intake, or decrease your sugar intake, as your goal for the first 2 weeks.
- Once your goals are achieved you can move on to other changes. Although this strategy can be slow, it may be more fun and can be a great way to ease into self-monitoring.
Dive into it head first
If you are more like the rabbit, and want to start big, then try this:
- Keep track of every single activity, behaviour, and/or food and drink item that you consume. This strategy will involve more effort but can lead to drastic results, and is good for people who want a complete overhaul of their diet.
Setting the stage: What tools should you use?
You can purchase pre-made food diaries, print out templates found on the Internet,
or make your own diaries based on your individual needs. Make sure that you keep your diary with you at all times, and record diligently. Include portion sizes, and information such as your mood, who you’re eating with, and when you’re eating. Food diaries are a great option for people who want to make general changes to their diet, for example adding more fruit, or increasing water intake. However, if you require a nutrient or caloric profile of your diet, you would still need to input at least 3 days worth of the record on a nutrient tracking app or website.
Many food-tracking apps are available to use on your smartphones. Seeing that most people can’t live without their cell phones, this may be a more practical and convenient option. Another benefit of using apps is that they have extensive databases of food options so that you won’t need to do any extra research on the calories or nutrient information. Here’s a list of some of the best apps out there. I recommend eaTracker or MyFitnessPal. (Check out the step-by-step guide to using these apps)
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Learn your baseline
To determine your end result, you would want to first know where you are starting at. To define the goal and time frame you need to understand what your actual baseline is.
- Start off by recording every single thing that you put in your mouth, and everything that surrounds that eating (situations, feelings, environment) for a week and evaluate it. Keep a diary (paper or electronic) for a minimum of a week.
- Ensure that these are your typical eating/drinking habits. You may want to exclude unusual days, such as a holiday party.
- Make sure to be detailed, and include the food item, brand name, and exact portion sizes.
- It may help to use tools such as measuring cup, measuring spoons, or food scales for accurate recording. You can also use some household items to estimate serving sizes.
- Be conscious of the circumstances around this, who you were with, what you were doing (including watching TV) etc.
- You can do the same thing for physical activity (even if it is steps), sleep and stress.
- You can also measure your weight and weight circumference weekly.
- Put this information together at the end of the week:
- Evaluate your week. Look for unusual trends and behaviour that you aren’t pleased with (example: late night eating or junk food while watching TV)
- Take a look the total amount of food/beverage you consumed. If you used paper for recording, at the end of the week input at least 3 days into a tracking app to track your nutrition and calories. If you used an app to monitor this will be done for you automatically.
Determine your End Results
Once you have established a baseline record, it’s time to set realistic goals, and think about how you can achieve them.
Write down a list of things you are willing to achieve. Don’t make it broad like “more energy” or “feel better”, because these are not measurable. Write down things you can measure, like “I want to lose 5-7 pounds in the next 5 weeks”, “I want to sleep 6-8 hours everyday this week”.
Notice these are small changes, but they are measurable. If you can’t measure something, how will you know if you are achieving it and that’s the whole point of monitoring.
Work on the goals while continuing to measure your daily intake to see results. Be honest with yourselves, and make the records as accurate as possible. It’s ok if you don’t reach your goal right away, it’s important to be consistent and keep trying until you find what works best for you!
What to Monitor?
What you monitor depends on your goal. The following are examples of goals, and what can be monitored to achieve them:
Calories, Weight & Waist Circumference
- You can choose reduce overall calories per day, week, or balance your calories per meal. To determine overall calories use a nutrient tracking app (such as the ones mentioned above), use exact measurement, and at the end of the week review your baseline for the whole week (this should be a typical week for you). Once you have your overall calories look for ways to reduce 3500 calories for the next week. This is equivalent to 1 pound (or 0.45 kg) of weight.
- To balance calories per meal pick three of the highest calorie meals from the previous week and think of ways to reduce those meals’ calories by half. You may choose to reduce the consumption of these meals, or find healthier, low-calorie substitutes. Log for another week and analyze your total calories.
- For weight and your waist circumference you only need to determine your baselines once. Check your weight at the beginning of the week and check it daily (or weekly) at the same time, ideally immediately after getting up. The more often you check, the higher the chances of weight loss. Keep a realistic expectation of how much you want to lose, and what you need to do and change to get to that goal. You can also measure other parameters like body fat percentage, muscle mass and visceral fat to get a better picture. Check out my Recommended Tools
Food Groups & Portions
- Balance your meals with all food groups that can improve your health. To do this you want to understand the key food groups that are missing in your diet, in most cases it is vegetables and dairy (milk products). Grocery shop for you favourite foods from the food group and meal plan for the week ahead. Log your meals for that week concentrating on including the new ingredients. During the next week think about removing other food groups that you may be consuming too much of (usually meats and refined grains).
- Check out my Recommended Tools for Portion Control.
Specific Nutrients & Fluids
- Focus on specific nutrients that can improve your health. Much like the example above on food groups, you can do the same for specific nutrients. It could help concentrating on adding more fibre and/or removing added sugar, then work your way into reducing trans fats and saturated fats. To do all this, log a week worth of your normal diet. Once you establish a baseline make changes, and continue logging into your records. Using apps would be ideal for this, as they can give you a complete nutrient file.
- Monitoring fluid intake can be a great way to increase your water intake and decrease intake of high sugar juices and sodas. Similar to monitoring food, record your water, and/or juice, and soda intake for a week. Set goals, make changes, and continue recording.
Meal Patterns and Situations
- Changing up your meal patterns so you eat evenly throughout the day and don’t overeat at dinner. Even though you may not be changing your calories – decreasing the concentration of foods you eat at each meal, and increasing snacks in the middle of the day – can make a big difference in your overall health. This can especially be beneficial if you have chronic health conditions. Log your meal times and what you eat in those meals. Include a rating of your hunger and fullness levels, to see if this can be an eating pattern you can stick to.
- Monitor the triggers and circumstances that lead you to choose some of your ”troubled foods”. Sometimes it happens while watching a TV show, or while you are commuting back from work, or a late mid-night snack or an ice cream right after speaking to a friend or family member. These are triggers you may not have realized until you put them all out on a paper. This is why it helps to monitor places, circumstances and situations too. Emotional eating or mindless eating is very common. Find your trigger and look for ways to replace those situations or the availability of foods. This is a whole different topic that we can get into. But the idea here is measure, evaluate and reset your habits/goals.
Physical Activity, Sleep & Stress Patterns
- Tracking you activity, sitting time, steps can open a whole new avenue for setting health goals. With any weight loss or healthy living program, food is just half of the battle. Factors like activity, sleep and stress can play a critical role in how fast you achieve your goals.